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November 24, 2002|Dana Calvo | Times Staff Writer

Wearing a blue sanitary paper hat and a matching UCLA Medical Center gown, the glamorous Maria Celeste Arraras made her NBC debut on "Dateline" and in the process made herself into the most prominent player in a blossoming media experiment between two television networks in different languages. In the coming weeks she will appear on NBC as well as Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language TV network in the country, stirring bilingual talent into the broadcast mix.

Celeste's perky good looks have drawn comparisons to NBC's "Today" host Katie Couric, but her cross-network contract brings to mind the deal worked out by CNN's foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who filed special reports for "60 Minutes" on CBS.

"You have to keep reinventing yourself," the 42-year-old broadcast journalist says during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "The public is like a boyfriend, and you have to keep doing exciting things to keep him interested."

In April, when NBC officially acquired Telemundo, Celeste signed on as managing editor and star of "Al Rojo Vivo con Maria Celeste" ("Red Hot With Maria Celeste"), a prime-time weekday magazine show. She also agreed to report and record special segments for NBC's prime-time evening magazine show, "Dateline."

"Because of the NBC-Telemundo joint venture it has opened a third dimension ... where there are no rules," she says, explaining that the cultural differences between the two networks range from the tonality of a breaking story to the amount of flashy accessories a female broadcaster is allowed to wear. On her Telemundo show, Celeste dresses more "Entertainment Tonight" than "NBC Nightly News."

In addition to experimenting with broadcast journalists, executives are arranging inter-network "visits" by actors and actresses, and on a recent Monday, Celeste was filming a guest appearance on NBC's daytime drama "Passions," which features a Latino family. In the "Passions" Thanksgiving episodes, scheduled to air Friday and Monday, she plays an embellished, flirtatious version of herself.

Neither Celeste nor Telemundo executives see her guest spot on "Passions" as a threat to her credibility. Celeste even admits to having quite a bit of fun doing a sendup of herself for entertainment TV and says she doesn't feel the least bit uncomfortable about how it might affect her role as a journalist. It's an attitude not shared by the vast majority of reporters on English-language networks; while some take news reporter roles in feature films, it's virtually unheard of for a broadcast news figure to appear on a soap.

Her character goes undercover and sneaks a hidden camera into the wealthy patriarch's mansion to reveal that he is a racist. For her cameo, she was decked out in skintight brown pants with a wide belt. Her low-cut lace shirt showed off the breast implants she got nine years ago, and with a glint in her eye, she stood in front of the cameras and fed hors d'oeuvres to the graying patriarch.

In real life, Celeste is married to a Cuban-born real estate attorney, and they live with their three children in South Florida, where Telemundo is based. The area's celebrity-crazed media culture has propelled Celeste beyond the status of a recognizable, Emmy Award-winning newscaster. She is a cover girl who was chosen this month as one of the "10 Most Intriguing People of the Year" by People en Espanol, and her every move is watched by Spanish-language entertainment press -- a critical cachet for this bilingual synergy test.

"I'm a journalist in both worlds," she says, "but in the Hispanic world everybody follows what I do, whether it's my kid's baptism or what I wore to a party."

Executives hope her well-cultivated appeal will lure some bilingual Spanish-language viewers to "Dateline," if only on the special occasions when Celeste appears. Also as important is her ability to draw bilingual NBC viewers to Telemundo for a chance to see Celeste on her nightly magazine show.

"Al Rojo Vivo" is very popular -- the most watched show in any language in New York in its time slot. She is a household name among Spanish speakers and was all but unknown in English-only homes until she "premiered" on NBC in August with a piece on the 10-month-old Guatemalan sisters conjoined at the skull who were surgically separated at UCLA Medical Center.

"NBC and Telemundo have had exclusive access for months now," said anchor Stone Phillips, who then mispronounced Celeste's Spanish last name twice. (It's Ah-RAH-ras.)

"That's OK. I don't mind," Celeste says. "He took the time and called several times to try and pronounce it correctly. It showed a lot of sensitivity to the market and the Spanish-speaking audience."

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